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19 December 2014

Lebbeus Woods in Cuba, Fined by USG

Lebbeus Woods right, Deborah Natsios, center.

Lebbeus Woods, Architect, was fined thousands of dollars by the USG for visiting, lecturing and designing in Cuba by invitation, the only member of a party singled out for punishment. Refusing to pay, the USG confiscated his financial assets. With US re-establishment of relations with Cuba, the fine should be returned to Woods' widow, Aleksandra, and daughter, Victoria. (Woods died October 30, 2012.)

Lebbeus Woods

E-Mail sent on 28th May 2001 from John Young

Lebbeus Woods suffered a heart attack two days ago, underwent a single bypass operation, and is recovering well at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. Not yet receiving visitors.

Lebbeus has been teaching at PSU School of Architecture and the last I heard running from the US Government revenuers who seek payment of fine levied on Leb for going to Cuba when that was stupidly illegal. Leb was the only member of a large party of invited scholars and architects who was singled out for political punishment.

What I admire in Leb is his ability to use his architecture for political action when few are doing that or even consider such career-damaging unprofessional design. To be sure, few of us have his genius to make it seem so easy to ridicule in sublime drawings the fatuity of Muschamp's beloved world class archtecture, and worse, those epicene campaigns to save world monuments while ignoring political monstrosities who underwrite "world" views.

These are lonely times for Lebbeus Woods.

In the early 1990s this irreverent New York architect produced a series of dark and moody renderings that made him a cult figure among students and academics. Foreboding images of bombed-out cities populated by strange, parasitic structures, they seemed to portray a world in a perpetual state of war, one in which the architect’s task was to create safe houses for society’s outcasts.

Since then Mr. Woods has become his own kind of outcast.

Architecture is big business today. While most of his friends and colleagues have abandoned their imaginary cities to chase lucrative commissions, Mr. Woods has shown little interest in building. Instead he continues to work at a small drafting table in a corner of his downtown apartment, a solitary, monklike figure churning out increasingly abstract architectural fantasies, several of which are on view in the “Dreamland” show at the Museum of Modern Art.

The “Cosmic Beauty” of Lebbeus Woods’ “Airplane Parts”

September 15, 2014

Airplane Parts (1992-93), Lebbeus Woods

Havana. At Christmas of 1994, it was still the fabled outpost of revolution. Granted, the revolution was tired, and more than a little threadbare. Political ideology and alliances with the Eastern Bloc had ruined the economy, with the help of an American economic embargo that had been in place since, in 1961, Cuba had been declared by Fidel Castro a Communist state and ally of the USSR. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 was the closest the Cold War ever got to getting hot, and Castro's loyalty to Marxist-Leninist principles remained ever since a thorn in the side of the Monroe Doctrine.

By the time we arrived--a group of architects invited by Peter Noever and the MAK in Vienna1--the city was largely dark at night from lack of electricity, basic goods were scarce, and parts of the city were in serious decay from lack of care. This was particularly true of La Habana Vieja, the Old Havana--the Spanish colonial city at the entrance to Havana's large, deep harbor on the sea. Home to poor black and Latino Cubans who could not afford to live elsewhere in the once-prosperous city of many landmark Modernist houses, this quarter's inhabitants lived amid ruins of 18th and 19th century buildings, and lacked the resources to repair or maintain them. In the finest local restaurants, the unpretentious fare consisted of pork and chicken dishes--no seafood. Fishing boats could not harvest the sea's bounty, because they were confined to port, having become a too-convenient vehicle of escape from this Communist paradise. The official currency was the Peso, but everything was reckoned in U.S. Dollars, for example on the meters of the taxis. In the countryside, oxen had begun replacing tractors for farming, for want of oil and gasoline--Cuba produces none of its own and the U.S. embargo severely limited imports. People in the Old Havana remained phlegmatic, as the poor anywhere often do. Through camera- and purse-grabbing from tourists was common, violence was rare. The streets were calm, the pace easy, the atmosphere congenial.

In any event, we were a cloistered group, traveling for the most part together around the city, following a highly structured schedule. Our mission, financed by the MAK, was to meet with architects and planners in Havana to discuss the future of the city, which we did, both privately and in a public event. We intentionally avoided meeting government officials, as we were not there to endorse in any way the regime. Also, we were asked by Peter to sketch out some proposals of projects we conceived for the Old City, as a way of enlivening our discussions. All of us believed that Havana should be built in the future by Cuban architects, and not culturally leveled by an influx of buildings designed by international architects, as was, and is, the case in so many cities around the world. Of course, we hoped that Cuba's decades old, repressive politics had not destroyed the independent imaginations of its architects. Visiting the sites of projects begun just before the Revolution, most of which remain unfinished today, we were struck by the fact that a highly original Cuban Modernist architecture has flourished here. In contrast, visiting the sites of apartment buildings pre-fabricated in East Germany that were imported here after the Revolution, as well as our Communist-bloc knock-offs, we were struck by the fact that the Revolution has smothered architectural creativity for decades. We hoped our visit, and our engagement with Havana and its architects could stimulate, or in some way nudge or help liberate creative forces latent or already at work beneath the surface. It had the whiff of 'Yankee' arrogance, we were aware, but our posture was relaxed, open, even playful, and not imposing.

Peter had the idea that we should create a manifesto while we were in Havana. I was sympathetic and brought some 'notes' that could be incorporated in our group manifesto, should it come to pass. Of course, it did not, and could not. Mostly we were seeing things from different angles of view, and arguing about what was important for Havana's future. There was no chance of a group statement, let alone a manifesto. In retrospect, it was inevitable--we did not represent any sort of movement or common way of thinking about anything, though we had much in common in our approach to architecture, which is the reason we were invited. On the other hand, our lack of at least a position paper left the impression of an individualist approach that would only feed the global tendency for architectural commodification: the future of the city is to be a collection of unique objects, designed by highly individualistic, probably internationally renowned, architects. Certainly this is the pattern that has been applied in many cities today. One problem with it is that it does not address, much less engage, the more urgent problems of the fabric of cities, the ordinary architectural infill that spans between the unique objects. Part of this fabric is, of course, the ever-expanding slums of the destitute, and the near-slums of the working poor. Part of is also the middle-class ghettoes of shopping malls, condominiums, and office spaces, with their mind-numbing conformity to common denominators.

I wish that we had been able to create some principled statement about Havana, as it was standing on the threshold of post-Castro, post-Communist development, as it was facing what is certain to be a surge of new, omnivorous capitalist development. But we could not, as a group, do it. The day we met to hammer out a statement/manifesto, we descended into evasions, jokes, derision. Wolf thought the lyrics of Dylan's Desolation Row comprised the best possible manifesto. I--feeling as he did the hopelessness of the situation between us--fell in with him: They're selling postcards to the hanging/ they're painting the passports brown/ the beauty parlor is filled with sailors/ the circus is in town….

1 Thom Mayne, Wolf Prix, Eric Owen Moss, Carme Pinos, Carl Pruscha, Peter Noever, and myself. See The Havana Project, Prestel Verlag, 1996.


Lebbeus Woods


20 January 1995

From each according to ability. To each according to need.

What is needed is not the revolution's "New Man," but a new conception of space for the person who already exists.

There is nothing for architecture to express anymore, but only the expressive modes of its actions.

There must be more walls, more separations that at the same time bring things closer together. This is precisely architecture's domain.

Decay is reformation without desire. Reformation without decay is desire's final incarnation.

Individuality is attained only within community. Without community, there is only isolation.

All cities are neighborhoods of one city. What is good or bad for one is good or bad for all.

Intervention? For good reason it is a duty, not a right. We are all travelers today, strangers away from home, from any place of origin. Home is today a concept of movement, and origin is only in the mind.

We are originals, all of us who live today, within today. We are our own origin, our own point of beginning.

Architecture must be original, too. It must always begin again…within itself.

Architecture must always be a struggle against--always against--its creators. Only in this way can it affirm the necessity to create.

There can be no more types or stereotypes. Nothing that is alive can be typical. For architecture this means the abolition of typologies, and the direct institution of actions.

The architecture most needed today is the architecture of crisis. This is what is meant by the term "critical architecture."

Architecture does not solve problems. Its distinction, if any, lies in the quality of problems it creates.

The revolution never created an architecture. Now it is architecture's turn…to create a revolution.



A new urban wall is proposed along the line of the Spanish colonial city wall, in order to concentrate the energies in La Habana Vieja, intensifying at the same time the processes of decay and new growth. Other walls--called 'urban batteries'--contain energy cells and water purification units that can be tapped by adjacent dwellings. Structurally, they support new, spontaneous constructions that are made in the gaps opened up by the demolition of old buildings in the existing cityscape. Their use is not determined in advance but only in the idiosyncratic and always changing ways they are inhabited. As a provocation and an armature for change, the walls do not simply separate spaces, but sponsor new and experimental forms of building and living.


Design for a new, continuous terrace along the entire six kilometers of the Malecon, the wide boulevard along the Carribean. The terrace, cantilevered over the sea, serves as a public terrace during good weather. During hurricanes, the force of the tide tilts the terrace up to form a seawall against potentially damaging flood tides.


Because of its vibrant culture and volatile political history, Havana is an ideal site for the establishment of an institute for the study of the idea and practice of institutions. The aim of such a metainstitute is to devise principles, practices and rules by which institutions (social, political, cultural) can revise and reform themselves. The metainstitute proposed for Havana (explored in three variations) is devoted to the analysis and invention of both stable and fluid urban terrains, the ambiguous, paradoxical, and unpredictable landscapes of the contemporary city that embody forces of change.

(January 1995)